Where Wizards Stay Up Late (Book Review)

Here’s one from the Archives.  This is a book review I wrote back in 1996. While the review itself is a little dated, the book itself has stood the test of time. It is still one of the best histories of the beginning of the Internet.

Where Wizards Stay Up Late: The Origins of the Internet by Katie Hafner and Matthew Lyon

The Internet has erupted onto the scene of mainstream consciousness in just a few short years.  Numerous attempts to “explain” all this technology has lead to a plethora of books purporting to educate “everyman” about the innermost workings of this technology.  Out of this morass of poorly-researched books (and entirely too few good ones) comes something more interesting: a technological history of the Internet’s direct ancestor.

Coming seemingly out of nowhere, vaulting from the relative obscurity of a handful of research facilities into homes and schools across the country and around the world, the Internet is obviously the most important technological tool since the personal computer (some would say since movable type).

But where did the Internet come from?  Was it created from whole cloth?  Was it created by a single company?  Why isn’t it run by “The Phone Company?”  What was the ARPAnet?  Just who did invent the Internet, and when, and why?

All of these questions (and many more) are answered by the eminently readable book Where Wizards Stay Up Late: The Origins of the Internet.  This books could be dismissed as simply “The Soul of a New Network” but that would be a mistake.  This book is more readable, yet more technically complete and accurate than Kidder’s The Soul of a New Machine.

Katie Hafner and Matthew Lyon have successfully explained the origins of the technology that millions now depend on and take for granted every day.  They take the reader on a journey that begins in the early days of the Cold War with the launch of Sputnik, and ends with today’s commercial on-line services, and ubiquitous electronic mail and World Wide Web addresses.  (Has anyone seen a recent television commercial or magazine advertisement without an “http” in it lately?)

Along the way, we are treated to the dreams of visionaries and charlatans, academics and bureaucrats, scientists and engineers, who shared the hope of using technology to connect people to people.

The story is organized chronologically, yet always sets the technology in the context of the people and the culture of the times.  The book focuses on the earliest period of the ARPAnet, the original computer network research project funded in the 1960s by the US Department of Defense.  This period is the least known, and the information about this period the most important to preserve at this time, while the persons involved are still around to tell (and debate) their stories.

This book is a first-class piece of historical detective work, piecing together developments at laboratories across the country and around the world, all of which dovetailed to produce the world’s first geographically-distributed computer network.

The first chapter is devoted to the origins of the Advanced Research Projects Agency (ARPA) itself, set in the days following Sputnik, and America’s technology “wake-up call”.  The early advocates are introduced, including Bob Taylor, Joseph Licklider (“Lick”), and Larry Roberts.

This book attempts (and mostly succeeds) in tracing the engineering decisions that shaped the ARPAnet’s technology.  The early debates of circuit-switched vs. packet-switched designs, centralized (star) vs. distributed (mesh) are all examined and explained in accessible, yet not over-simplified terms.

The origins of Bolt Beranek and Newman (BBN), and the people who worked there are described in some  facinating detail.  Who would imagine that a consulting company that was formed to perform acoustical engineering for new buildings would become the builders of a computer network? The trials and tribulations of the “IMP Guys” that led to the creation of the first network “router”, the ARPANET Interface Message Processor (IMP), introduces two people who would continue to to connect people and computers: Willie Crowther (original author of “ADVENTURE”), and Bob Kahn, who started the Strategic Computing Program, which is the more formal name for the “Information Superhighway” program of the U.S. government.  The late nights, and the eradication of “the bug” on the eve of the first IMP’s shipment from Cambridge to California are all recounted in a no-nonsense, technically-savvy style.

Later chapters describe the activities at SRI, the original Network Information Center (NIC), and the culture and people who decided that a network standards document should be a “Request For Comments” (RFC).

These RFCs, and a culture of openness have been blamed (or praised) for the demise of the International Standards Organization (ISO) Open System Inteconnect (OSI) network protocols;  the closed, agonizingly slow process of ISO standardization process was continually “overcome by events” as the ARPANET folks pushed the envelope with “rough consensus and running code”.

Along the way we meet the first RFC, by Steve Crocker, titled simply “Host Software”, followed by the first higher level protocols, documented by Jon Postel, Vint Cerf, the “MsgGroup” and the network’s first “flame war” (over email standards), the now-infamous “header wars”.

The ARPANET’s direct contribution to Artificial Intelligence research, operating systems (including UNIX), and human communication are all explored as well.

It’s an interesting journey, told through the eyes of the pioneers that blazed the trail.  But make no mistake, this book is about the people behind the technology as much (or more) than about the technology itself.

The authors of this book have reached back to the original sources, they have spoken to and interviewed many of those who were directly responsible for the work described.  In many cases the authors have reached into the ARPA/IPTO Oral History project tapes and distilled
this collection of interviews into a seamless, coherent picture.

This book is about the people who invented the technology and culture of the Internet, the legacy of practical engineering, and “rough consensus and running code.”

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